'Cripping the Muse' Conference Report

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to present some of my research at the conference portion of the ‘Cripping the Muse’ summit at the University of Leeds. This wonderful event – which sought to ‘promote the dialogue and increase conversations between Music and Disability Studies’ – brought together scholars, practitioners, educators, and musicians with research interests in these fields.

The range and quality of the research shared was incredible, and you can read about the contributors here. I thought I’d use this post as a way to showcase some of the fascinating work that is being done in the emerging field of music and disability studies and share some broader comments on the event.

The first session of the day was themed ‘Music, Health, Wellbeing & Disability’. Carolyn Shaw’s pre-recorded paper ‘Blowing the post-human trumpet: Changing the humanist subject in music therapy practice through a disabled lens’ opened the proceedings. Shaw discussed the problematic dominance of humanistic thinking in music therapy practice, and offered an alternative approach using post-humanist thought as a less ableist way of thinking about what it is to be human and to make music. Sonia Allori’s paper, ‘Lost and found: therapeutic song writing with stroke survivors’ detailed her work combining music therapy with cognitive behavioural therapy and creating an environment in which participants could reflect on their experiences with stroke. She was followed by Giorgos Tsiris, who, in his paper, reflected on the absence of music therapy in disability studies, and suggesting that these two areas have much to offer one another. Overall, this session highlighted the benefit of re-thinking dominating practices that seek to promote health and wellbeing through music. Using the various models of disability studies, we can begin to challenge and correct ableist approaches.  

Charles Matthews’ paper ‘The social model of disability from a music technology (and ADHD) perspective’ was the first in a session entitled ‘Music, Disability & Performance’. Matthews made the important point that the move towards accessibility in music-making should be sought with and not for disabled people. Next, Robbie McDermott gave a fascinating insight into the various uses and styles of prosthetics in popular music, with references to both complex and expensive prosthetics and simple DIY prosthetics in music-making. The final presentation of this session was given by Dr Kerry Firth and David Cane. Firth shared her experiences as a visually impaired opera singer at the beginning of her career, before the pair discussed ‘Access all Arias’ – an emerging Manchester-based opera company that seeks to bring together disabled and non-disabled opera singers. The papers in this session shed light on the move towards inclusive practice within diverse music-making environments, but also highlighted that there is much more to be done to ensure equality and inclusion across the board.


After the break for lunch, Dr. Paul Whittaker, OBE, gave an engaging keynote about music and deafness, his hugely-successful career, and his ideas about integration and inclusion. Echoing earlier comments about developing inclusive practices, he reflected on tokenistic efforts to implement policies of inclusion without consulting stakeholders:

Ticking boxes does not impress me [...] We are the experts, we know what we’re doing, we have a policy – Get lost!
— Dr. Paul Whittaker

Whittaker concluded his talk with words of encouragement for the delegates and presenters: 

Keep exploring, keep talking, keep debating, keep learning.
— Dr. Paul Whittaker

Lisa Tregale and Alexander Campkin of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra presented about BSOResound. You can read more about the world’s first disabled-led ensemble as part of a professional Orchestra's main programme of work here.

The final session of the day was dedicated to ‘Reflections on Practice’. My own paper featured some of my thoughts about the ‘performance’ of disability on contemporary opera stages. Sarah Fisher’s presentation and micro-workshop followed, and featured her practical and highly engaging pedagogical approach to music and disability. She discussed the impact of her ‘A way, not The way’ approach had on participants of the Community Music Spark project at Sage Gateshead. The final speaker of the day was Ben Lunn, whose paper ‘Composing Without a Cure’ was a unique celebration of the work of several Autistic composers. A transcript of Ben’s paper is available here.

In addition to the fascinating papers, there were a number of poster and video presentations. Rebecca Porter’s paper ‘#CripTheMusic: Disabled people’s access to live music’ considered accessibility and inclusion of disabled people at live music events.

Further presentations were given by Jane Williams and members of the Turning Tides Project, Jacob Adams of Attitude is Everything, and Beth Pickard, amongst others.

I'm assured that all of the alternative format presentations will be available online in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out  #CtMLeeds for more insights and opinions on the wealth of research shared at this wonderful event.

Many thanks to Sarah Mawby, Gillian Loomes, and Rachel Salter for organising this fantastic event. Here's hoping it'll be the first of many!